A journey in home energy efficiency
by Zach Henkin
I have had a fascination for efficiency ever since my parents first installed a large globe-style fluorescent lamp to replace an incandescent overhead bulb in my childhood bedroom. This fascination for energy has steadily progressed and, as luck would have it, so has technology.
Now, having a family and home of my own, I’ve been able to upgrade and nerd out on the electricity usage of our 1954 early ranch-style home. Over a two-year period I’ve been able to progressively cut our natural gas and electricity usage by more than 60% by changing light bulbs, upgrading appliances and a bit of behavior modification.
Steps towards energy efficiency
1. Energy audits & appliance upgrades
Our house has a forced air natural gas furnace that feeds air through ducts running above the ceiling and into the living area and rest of the home. We also use a central air conditioner, a natural gas range and oven, and a natural gas water heater with a 60-gallon tank. The old furnace had needed professional attention more and more frequently over the winter months. This had become an annoyance, especially after purchasing and installing a feature-laden programmable thermostat. What I needed was an extra nudge to encourage an appliance upgrade; I found that through the Clean Energy Works Oregon (CEWO) home efficiency program.
After receiving a home energy audit with a local contractor, I discussed the “low hanging fruit” upgrades that would improve my home’s comfort while also providing a decent return on investment. After serious thought, we decided to replace the aging furnace, the 20-year old water heater and to also have an assortment of insulation and sealing upgrades installed. The insulation in our attic was old and compacted, providing hardly any insulating benefits. The crawl space had never been insulated or sealed. After a series of tests, we found that there was a surprising amount of efficiency loss in our ducting. Finding and sealing all the existing air leaks would become a major part of our energy plan paired with the appliance upgrades.
It’s worth noting that we considered a tankless gas water heating system but decided on a direct-tanked water heater replacement. The tankless model was more expensive, but the real barrier came from the additional installation cost and the piping upgrades that would be called for. The return on the investment was atrocious for our circumstance. We decided on the most efficient natural gas replacement that would dimensionally fit our installation.
The cost for the CEWO upgrades came to around $8500 before approximately $2500 in cash rebates from the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO), Clackamas County and CEWO were applied. We also were able to take advantage of several thousand dollars in federal and state tax credits. The appliances will add value to our home if sold, keep us comfortable and save an ongoing 30% on our energy usage. Most importantly, by being proactive we were able to selectively choose what we were installing rather than waiting for the questionable appliances to fail at an inconvenient time.
2. Additional upgrades, particularly lighting
Following these upgrades, we weighed where our next home improvements could lie. My wife and I had wanted a replacement refrigerator for years. After some research, a modern energy star model found its way into our home after a Black Friday sale. The ETO wrote us a small check for upgrading and disposed of our old fridge free of charge.
Our interior lighting also gradually has been upgraded as we now use efficient low energy consumption LED bulbs wherever possible. For most folks there is really no need to continue using incandescent lighting when CFL or LED bulbs cast great light while using much less energy.
3. Vampire energy
Lastly, we made a commitment to try to eliminate as many vampire energy loads as possible. The standby lights on our home entertainment system alone had the energy consumption equivalent of several light bulbs running 24/7. By turning systems off when not in use via power strip switches, I was able to ensure that entertainment appliances weren’t running in standby mode when I wanted them off. All of the blinking lights and plugged-in standby devices can amount to significant energy usage. My microwave may be too inconvenient to unplug each time I use it, but unplugging the coffeemaker is something I can live with.
Our home now operates much more efficiently than it did before the efficiency upgrades. The best part is that the upgrades improve comfort and add value to our home without any perceived drawbacks. While I continue to track our energy on a regular basis because I’m an energy geek, the next projects we tackle for the house will likely relate to drainage, rain gardens and the reuse of rainwater. I can’t wait to make more progress.
How you can improve your own efficiency
Shrinking an energy bill is simple once you acknowledge the different roles that you, your appliances and your home play in the equation. The local utility (e.g. PGE, Northwest Natural) provides detailed information every month about your current and past energy consumption on an invoice. Past usage is a great benchmark for future goals.
The Energy Trust of Oregon or Clean Energy Works Oregon are happy to provide free home energy audits where a certified professional will take a detailed look at your home’s energy performance. There are also lots of great free informational resources and financial subsidies available for homes and businesses incentivizing technology upgrades.
A few great resources for incentives and other info that I’ve frequented are DSIREusa.org, and EnergyTrust.org. It’s gratifying to write a smaller check at the end of the month to our utility providers; it’s even more gratifying to know that we are doing our part by using and wasting less. If you haven’t already, start small and change out any incandescent light bulbs you may have. You’ll be surprised at the impact a simple technology upgrade can have.
Zach Henkin is an MBA in Sustainable Business alum. He’s a self-described energy geek and advocate for green energy, especially solar and electric vehicles.